When Bands Become Conventional
There was this funny phenomenon back in the day when Pavement would release an album. Fans and critics would complain that they were losing their edge and making conventional classic rock records1. Part of the “problem” was that each album’s production value improved as better recording studios became accessible to the band. They moved away from their lo-fi beginnings as they recorded on better equipment with better engineers2 turning the nobs. Also, Stephen Malkmus started crafting songs instead of just throwing sounds together over the hiss of the tape. All this growth coincided with the band becoming a proper outfit3. They left day jobs and became full-time indie rockers4.
The transformation into a conventional rock band spit in the face of everything for which their fans thought Pavement stood5. Of course, complaining about a Pavement album is a right of passage for every Pavement fan6. Those who knew them from the early Slay Tracks era hated the slick sounding Slanted and Enchanted. I remember every Pavement fan I knew hated Wowee Zowee when it was released only to love it as soon as “that piece of shit” Brighten the Corners hit the shelves. The phenomena even worked retroactively. I discovered Slanted after Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain thought it superior in every way despite my obsession with the newer record. A lot of us blamed this regression on the band giving in to traditional rock band structures, becoming a conventional rock ‘n roll band.
Of course, this was all ridiculous as each Pavement album stands on its own merit, regardless of the state of the band. In fact, one could argue that they were less of a cohesive band by their farewell album, Terror Twilight despite how so many die-hard fans complained of its adult contemporary-like accessibility. Regardless, that’s the impression fans and some critics had. Punk rock ruined us all. We love sloppy, ramshackle rock bands7. They always made us feel like we could do the same thing. We couldn’t, but the fact that our favorite bands were fuck-ups made them so attainable.
Wolf Parade is a different band. They were a combination of other bands those in the underground love(d). Each member has his share of other projects with nearly as much clout as Wolf Parade. However, none of those bands ever recorded an album as glorious as Apologies to the Queen Mary. That was their debut, relegating them to careers aimed at surpassing that achievement8. Every album the members release on their own or collectively is compared to Apologies which is too bad as each album should be judged on its own merit, within its own, unique context.
The band’s follow-up was the forgettable9 At Mount Zoomer. However, had their sophomore album been the debut of another band or a piece in any other discography, it would have hailed as a great record. It just didn’t measure up to Apologies.
Now comes Expo 86, maybe the band’s most cohesive effort to date. I still can’t tell if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. That’s why it’s taken me over a week to put these thoughts in a blog post. Despite my doubts, the album is good. I can’t wrap my head around it as of yet, but I’m working hard on this one10. I’m not getting that punch-in-the-gut feeling Apologies gave me, but there is a slight tingle.
Never have the writing and vocal styles of Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner fit together so seamlessly. I always felt their albums were battles to see which style would win out. In the end, both would go back to their various projects dejected. There, Krug and Boeckner would find themselves again and return to the fight that is a Wolf Parade record. Not so on Expo 86. I had trouble keeping score between the two primary musicians, losing track as to who was singing and whose song they were hacking. The album fits itself from beginning to end. I can’t deny the cohesion11.
Then I wonder if this is a good thing. Should I not only feel that punch in the gut but also that slap to the face? Apologies grabbed me from the opening beats. It took me to the woodshed and had its way with me. I was hypnotized despite its uneven, two-pronged attack. Of course, the cohesion on that album was somehow created from Isaac Brock’s production in which he stripped both Krug and Boeckner of their identities…but I digress12.
Expo 86 is, at the very least, worth several listens before writing it off. Some will complain about its mediocrity, that it’s neither good nor bad.
At its very best, it’s a challenging album that takes time to appreciate, an album that stays in the rotation because it’s too interesting to dismiss and thought-provoking enough to garner discussion and debate.
Either way, the transformation of Wolf Parade into a conventional, cohesive band is having an effect. Expo 86 might not be the end of this story. It might just be the beginning. The direction the band takes from here will be telling as to whether this move toward a conventional rock band is a good or bad thing. For me, Expo 86 will appreciate if the conventional turns out to be the same thing that drew me rock ‘n roll in the first place13. However, this development might just give me fodder to complain about each successive album, only appreciating the previous release once Wolf Parade releases another. Then, maybe Wolf Parade will be a lot like Pavement.
1Which is so laughable in retrospect. Pavement couldn’t make a classic rock record of they tried. And besides, what the hell is “classic rock”? I feel like it used to be the Beatles, Stones, maybe Zeppelin. Now it’s as if every hair metal band from ’83 is classic rock. Classic rock might be the worst moniker for a genre of music this side of indie, crunk, and slow-core.
2Sorry, Gary Young. You were a shitty drummer, gymnast, and record producer. Pavement was better off without your burnt-out California, gun-toting, plant man shtick.
3And by “proper”, I simply mean that they practiced a bit before they toured, maybe rehearsed before recording. I don’t think they ever all lived in the same city at the same time. Pavement might be more proper than ever just by simply doing this reunion thing.
4I believe that I read somewhere that Bob Nastanovich actually left another day job in order to join the reunion. He was maintaining some horse racing database or something.
5The emphasis should be on the what the fans thought here. I don’t think that it was ever Pavement’s collected stance to abstain from becoming a real band. They certainly toured a shit-ton in the mid-nineties and played nice with some alt-rock luminaries (sans Smashing Pumpkins, but who played nice with that asshole Billy Corgan?). Pavement were a vehicle for their fans to reject anything conventional even though the band was a pretty conventional rock outfit for the most part – dudes with guitars played loudly.
6Just wait for all the blog posts from their upcoming summer dates around the country.
7See Black Flag who was hated by their own fans once they started incorporating metal riffs and grew their hair long. Of course, we’re all thankful Henry Rollins stuck with the dirty gym shorts and didn’t discover spandex.
8Another band who did this but has failed miserably in trying to attain the same heights as their debut is Interpol. Turn on the Bright Lights is as perfect a debut as there has ever been, but when when the following two duds are taken into consideration. I haven’t heard the new Interpol record. I think it’s safe to say that it will be a dud as well.
9I only use this term because no one ever remembers this record. It had a really bad cover and strayed far from Apologies, ironically making a sound much closer to what the band members intended for their first go-around.
10I’m still listening to it constantly, trying to piece together a coherent thought beyond the coherence of the record. Is that coherent? Coherently coherent?
11Or overuse the term, apparently. That, I guess, is a characteristic/flaw of my writing. I’m redundant and use the same word over and over, in case you haven’t noticed. Good thing I don’t do this for a living.
12That’s what the footnotes are for. I actually really love what Brock did to Wolf Parade. A synth-heavy debut would have come off contrived, pretentious. Looking back, it’s actually quite surprising Brock stripped the music down so much considering his tendency to overdo it. Somehow, he made it work but at the cost of what makes the individual parts of Wolf Parade so amazing. A good topic to debate would be whether Isaac Brock ruined Wolf Parade or did he make them great?
13You know, rebellion, your parents hate it, has a good beat, danceability, etc.